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‘Life, Animated’ Director Reveals How Filmmakers Secured the Rights to Use Classic Disney Characters

TheWrap Screening Series: Documentary follows an autistic child who learns to communicate through animated Disney movies like ”Peter Pan“ and ”Jungle Book“

“Life, Animated,” a documentary about an autistic child who learns to communicate by watching Disney films, took a couple years to come together — mainly because the filmmakers had to get the rights for the various Disney characters used in the film.

The key to their success was a connection between president of Disney Productions, Sean Bailey, and “Life, Animated” director Roger Ross Williams through the Sundance Institute.

After they were introduced by the CEO of Sundance, Williams went into Disney and pitched the idea of the film to Bailey. “He just totally loved it,” the director told Steve Pond at TheWrap’s Screening Series on Monday. “He said, ‘I’m going to help you and shepherd you through this process.'”

Bailey then put together a team of the heads of departments at Disney to listen as Williams talked them through the documentary’s journey — which was impactful, to say the least.

“I had shot a bunch of the film, and I did a presentation and I had these index cards and I was shaking and was terrified,” Williams revealed, “I was like, ‘this is it.’ By the time I had gotten to the end of the presentation, they were all in tears, and I had them. I refer to it as the day I made the lawyers cry.”

If Disney hadn’t given them the rights, he said, they would’ve figured out a way to shoot the film with fair use, but instead, “I took a leap of faith,” Williams said.

“Life, Animated” follows Owen Suskind, a young man who was unable to speak as a child until his family discovered that by immersing himself in classic Disney animated films, he could learn to communicate. The film follows Suskind on his journey through adulthood, and it is based on his father Ron Suskind’s New York Times bestseller titled “Life, Animated — A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism.”

After he went inexplicably silent at the age of three, Suskind spoke his first words, “I don’t want to grow up like Mowgli or Peter Pan.”

The filmmakers of “Life, Animated” never told Suskind which Disney clips to watch while making the doc. It was all 100 percent Suskind’s decision.

“This is how he gets through life,” Williams said. “He uses these films to understand and decipher the world. All day long, he is watching clips to understand how he is feeling and what’s going on in his life. He chooses these clips very wisely and we didn’t have any say.”

One example is when Suskind’s girlfriend, Emily, broke up with him. Williams said Suskind watched a scene in “Toy Story” where a toy named Emily is sad because her owner doesn’t want to play with her anymore and abandons her.

“He kept playing it over and over and when I would catch him, he would say, ‘I’m not watching it!’ … He had to go through the pain and emotion and had to find his peace with it. That was a process that plays out because Owen just expresses it verbally. I think he needed to go through that.”

During the Q&A, Williams reflected on the process of making the film and its subject, saying that Suskind was the “ideal documentary subject, who lives in the moment and understood what we were doing … helping other people understand who he is and bring them into his world.”

He added, “Owen is not someone you can direct. If I would say, ‘Owen, walk through the door again,’ he would say, ‘why? I just walked through this door!’ Owen is pure, he won’t lie, and he has no filter. He is a pure human being — he is just who he is.”